Ask the Developer Vol. 8, Fire Emblem Engage—Part 2
Content pre-recorded in accordance with current COVID-19 health and safety guidelines.
This article has been translated from the original Japanese content.
The images shown in text were created during development.
Check out the rest of the interview:
Part 2: In a delicate balance
Now that we have a good understanding of this game's setting and theme, I would like to take a deep dive into the visuals. Was Mika Pikazo-san (6) chosen as the illustrator to handle this title's character design from the very beginning?
(6) An illustrator born in Tokyo in 1993. After graduating high school, she became interested in South American video technology, advertising design and music, and moved to Brazil for about two years. Since returning to Japan, she has worked on various genres of artwork including character design, logo and merchandise design for apparel brands, cover art for novels and CD album covers.
Tei: We had several candidates. We were looking for an artist whose design style would appeal to a broad audience – including younger players – as well as the ability to portray a variety of characters. Among the candidates, Mika Pikazo-san's drawings were colorful, vivid, and really popped! They were a perfect fit for the flashy direction we wanted for this title. It was a unanimous vote with the entire development team agreeing, “She’s the one!”
Nakanishi: It was really vibrant and dazzling, and I felt that it had everything we were looking for.
So, it was an easy decision?
Tei: Thankfully, she accepted our offer right away saying that she wanted to do it. Since there are so many characters, it was going to be a job lasting several years, but luckily the timing worked out well with her schedule.
Yokota: So then... Did you just approach her and ask her to draw 50 or so characters without any information about the game, like you'd normally do? (Laughs)
Tei: Well, yes... (Laughs)
Nakanishi: If Intelligent Systems asks you to design 50 characters, it's pretty obvious that it's for a new Fire Emblem™ game, right? (Laughs)
Tei: Well, I thought it'd be better to be upfront about the request. That said, there was one concern she had. Since she usually draws young characters, she was concerned about her confidence level in some of the character design. It's true that the designer's skills should not be limited to drawing cool nobles and young girls. In Fire Emblem, there are a variety of characters like hardened soldiers, and on top of that they need to be able to draw armor, weapons, and creatures like Pegasuses.
It’s not often that you’re asked to draw a Pegasus. (Laughs)
Nakanishi: An illustrator once told us that they didn't know where the wings on a Pegasus grow from, or how people mount it. (Laughs)
Tei: But Mika Pikazo-san was up for new challenges, and she worked very hard.
So, what was the first character you had asked her to draw?
Tei: The first characters were Alear and Céline. We thought it was best to start off with the base male character and female characters. These are some of the rough designs from the first draft.
Based on the game's settings, she proposed many variations with different hairstyles and color schemes and such. Then we had back and forth discussions with our internal staff to decide the character's image.
Wow, the color is so bright even from this rough sketch.
Nakanishi: I think that’s one of the unique features of Mika Pikazo-san's work. She uses accent colors here and there, and strikes the right balance. It’s easier to understand if you look at her actual drawings, but even though she uses bold colors, they don’t look flat. They have a natural finish, and that’s one of the excellent qualities of her drawings.
Yokota: In the days of the Super Family Computer (known as the Super NES in North America and Europe), I think the characters from the Fire Emblem series stood out as having primary colors. I like how the designs in this title resemble those days.
Higuchi: I remember we were using colors like B100% for the hair color, instead of mixing the colors in RGB (7). (Laughs) Especially in the Fire Emblem games released for the Family Computer (Famicom) system (known as the NES in North America and Europe), we had so many characters despite the limitation in how many colors we could use for one character. So, there were quite a number of characters that we characterized just by color. Maybe that’s why you have that impression.
(7) The initials of the three primary colors of light: red, green, and blue. Mixing these three colors in various ways produces a broad array of colors. However, due to functional limitations, it was difficult to have complicated color schemes in the earlier gaming consoles.
Tei: Now we can mix colors without any concern over the technical limitations. So, like this, we refined the character designs based on each character's personality and appearance, while looking at the overall balance of colors to make sure there’s no overlap between them.
It sounds like a challenging job to use this many bold colors while also creating a sense of unity as a whole.
Tei: Yes, I think it was really impressive of her to put it together to this scale. I just remembered this funny moment. Mika Pikazo-san draws very detailed items even in the rough draft. For example, there’s a sword master character named Kagetsu, and he comes from a place with a unique culture that's different from the other characters. We don’t have any Japanese-style nations in this title, but when I looked at the rough sketch, I noticed this character was holding a rice ball in his hand. (Laughs)
That gave us some ideas that have been implemented into an in-game event.
So, her note on the rough sketch helped define the character's personality then.
Tei: Mika Pikazo-san has been playing the Fire Emblem series for quite a while, and she had a lot of knowledge about older titles in the series. She gave us many ideas like, “Let’s make Alear’s hair color red and blue,” or things like, “For Clanne and Framme, green and red might be good,” considering the previous titles in the series.
Higuchi: But it’s been more than 30 years since the first game in the series, so there are some elements that have changed over generations. For example, the characters in this game are royals and nobles, but they’re also somewhat down to earth and relatable. It’s the kind of closeness you might feel towards celebrities you can casually interact with on social media. Of course, every character has their own unique qualities to make them stand out on their own.
Were there any characters that caught your attention among them?
Higuchi: The character I thought, “Whoa, who is this?” about the most was Yunaka. Her personality and the way she talks is nothing like the characters we had before. At first, I had mixed feelings, but then as we progressed through the development, I got more and more curious about her. (Laughs) Now she’s one of my favorites.
Nakanishi: I really like Framme. Throughout the series, many of the healer-type soldiers were unable to attack and had to be protected, but this time, there’s a Monk class that's good at hand-to-hand combat to fight in battle. These kinds of healer-type characters are easily targeted, but it’s fun because now you can fight back on your own.
Yokota: I like the idea of strengthening those kinds of characters. It’s fun, right?
Tei: Also, Mika Pikazo-san has some experience with designing 3D characters, so I had the impression that she was creating the characters while contemplating how they will look in 3D.
Now that you mention it, the characters in this game are displayed in 3D models and not 2D, right? It must have been a lot of work considering how many of them there are.
Tei: Yes, it was. We also prioritized the quality of each character, so it was a long climb. In general, original illustrations are drawn in more detail compared to the 3D models. So in past Fire Emblem games, when we couldn’t finish the artwork in 3D with the level of richness that we hoped for, we displayed 2D illustrations to supplement that. Since this is the second mainline Fire Emblem title released on Nintendo Switch™, we wanted to challenge ourselves to only use 3D models.
Nakanishi: By displaying and moving the characters in 3D, we can add richer expressions for their eye movements and facial expressions during battles. And for this game, we planned the effects to be flashy and striking, so that’s why we wanted to take on the challenge of only using 3D models.
Tei: We even used the same 3D models for the characters' faces in the conversation windows during battles, just like in other scenes.
Mika Pikazo-san’s drawings are very detailed, and as mentioned when we were discussing the balance of colors, they seem to be put together with just the right balance. If that’s the case, wasn't it a tough job to convert all the designs into 3D models? Previously, when we had the Xenoblade Chronicles 3 interview, there were some conversations around converting 2D drawings into 3D models, and the executive director Tetsuya Takahashi mentioned how he requested revisions over and over again.
Nakanishi: Well, yes... During development, we had some struggles improving the quality, and there were times when we had opinions like, “If it’s at this level, maybe 2D illustrations should be used together.”
Higuchi: For just the main characters alone, there must have been at least six revisions. Eventually, we had Mika Pikazo-san come over to the development offices in Kyoto to review them in detail.
Tei: She would add comments directly on the spot, and we would compare the 2D drawings to point out the differences. Then we would reflect that feedback right away...and repeat this over and over again.
Nakanishi: We zoomed in on the faces and requested to make retouches around the face line and eyes many times. A character's face is made with various parts, and even the slightest shift in balance will make it look odd.
Tei: We were modeling based on Mika Pikazo-san’s illustrations, but in the early days of development, we were having a hard time making the facial features look similar to the illustrations. They were at various degrees of completion depending on the characters. Then Mika Pikazo-san shared with us a proportion document that broke down the facial parts, the outline of the face, and organized the characters by age group and gender. So, thanks to that document, we were able to maintain the overall balance of the design when creating the 3D models. Also, the document allowed us to make the facial features of each character look drastically closer to the illustrations.
That’s impressive. She sure knows a lot about designing 3D characters.
Tei: Also, we put quite a lot of effort in the expression of the eyes. We already mentioned that the way she uses the bold colors is amazing, but the eyes are also expressed in a delicate balance. The irises of the eyes were particularly difficult. When you look at how she drew the eyes, you'll notice the irises are intricate and never simple.
Regarding the eyes, we thoroughly exchanged views from the early stages of development. Compared to 2D drawings where you paste the texture, we wanted to implement a stereoscopic and dynamic expression that can only be achieved with 3D modeling.
It’s not easy to model eyes in 3D, right? It might look fine when you see it from the front but when you look at it from the side, it may not look cohesive. How did you overcome this?
Tei: It took lots and lots of time, but the development staff really gave it their all.They disassembled components of the eye and, while receiving feedback from Mika Pikazo-san for each one of them, they made adjustments so that each part would move properly. It was a detailed review process, rotating the model with the 3D editor and examining to make sure that it looked fine from every angle. We created the models in such a way so that when we moved the characters, they would look in the player's direction. So, we would test the movement of the eyeballs with many expressions and completed each task one by one.
Wait... You would do this adjustment for all the characters?
Tei: Yes. And oh my, it was a lot of work. (Laughs) But because we put a lot of effort into fine-tuning these features, we were able to bring the face and eyes, which are the biggest features of Mika Pikazo-san’s design, to the point where we could project them on a large screen without any problems. So, I hope everyone will enjoy the graphics on a large screen using TV mode.
I’m sure it will create an immersive feeling if you can enjoy this vivid, colorful world on a large screen. Now that you have completed the character design, I think your next step is to create personalities and battle scenes for each character. Can you tell us more about the efforts you made from this “flashy direction” perspective?
Nakanishi: The previous title, Fire Emblem: Three Houses, was a war chronicle, so there was the flashy appeal of leading a large number of troops as "battalions" but because of that, we weren't able to pursue the flashy dramatic effects in 3D.
If the movement is limited to one character, it made it look like others in a battalion were not following. So, we didn't have much choice but to tone down the actions. But this time, we could plan out the battle scenes on an individual basis, so we asked Intelligent Systems to make the actions as flashy as possible, like adding a dash motion effect when soldiers attack or allowing to shoot an arrow from a fort and so on.
Tei: All scenes are expressed with 3D models and camerawork, so we were able to thoroughly show the characters' serious expressions when the camera zoomed in.
Higuchi: In particular, Teraoka-san (8), the art director for this title, is very talented at creating motion design and he put a lot of focus on the characters' movements. The Fire Emblem titles released on the Game Boy Advance were also characterized by their flashy battle animation despite the pixel art. While paying homage to those past works, Teraoka-san created a motion design that is as cool as those works.
(8) Takafumi Teraoka. Art director in the Information Development Department in Intelligent Systems. He has worked on the motion creation for titles such as Fire Emblem Fates and Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia launched on Nintendo 3DS.
Yokota: You can really see his passion come through in motions like Framme's punch.
The battling scenes are so cool, and you can tell that it’s stuffed with Teraoka-san’s love. (Laughs)
Nakanishi: This game is designed so that the battling motions will change as the characters level up. For example, in the beginning, the character will just simply dodge the attack from enemies. But as they get stronger, they will counterattack while parrying, or slash at flying arrows with a sword, and so the motion changes as the character grows stronger. These kinds of details are also fun.
I see, so the players can feel the growth of the characters throughout those in-game actions.
Tei: Also, this may be something fans of the series will appreciate, but when you Engage with the Emblems, the characters will quote iconic lines from the past titles. Those who start the series with this title can enjoy a variety of lines that change depending on whom the characters Engage with. And those who have played the past titles can enjoy creating pairs and hearing the characters quote those familiar lines from the past.